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5 Best Pre-Workout Meals to Try (From a Dietician)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

People are always looking for ways to improve their workout performance, muscle growth, and weight loss.

In my experience as a fitness trainer for over a decade, many people tend to neglect the importance of eating before exercise. Whether it’s weight loss or muscle growth, optimal pre-workout nutrition plays a major role in workout performance.

To better explain the facts, I spent a few weeks reviewing scientific literature with the help of a dietician, as well as testing out what proved to be most effective for my clients.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  • Eating a pre-workout meal can improve athletic performance, build lean body mass, and help prevent injury during exercise.
  • Fats and proteins tend to digest slower than carbs, so they should be consumed at least a couple of hours before working out.
  • Pre-workout meals like greek yogurt, lean beef, and fruits can give your body the energy to push through tough workouts.

Why Should You Eat Before a Workout?

Close up shot of someone eating a salad

You should eat before a workout to fuel your body with enough calories and nutrients to power through your exercises.

Beginners often ignore pre-workout nutrition because many tend to believe that the extra calories might work against them. However, this is far from true.

There isn’t any strong evidence that suggests working out on an empty stomach burns more fat than working out after eating a meal [1].

Regardless of your exercise routine and fitness goals, pre-workout foods might have more benefits than working out on an empty stomach or in a fasted state.

3 Benefits

A fit person running on the treadmill

Eating a pre-workout meal has many benefits. Here are some of the most important ones that’ll tie into your workout, recovery, and fitness results.

1. Heightened Athletic Performance

Eating the right foods before a workout may heighten your athletic performance and increase your exercise capacity.

For example, consuming complex carbohydrates before a workout can fuel your body with the energy it needs to perform well [2].

Likewise, many studies show that eating protein before a meal can increase muscle-protein synthesis, which improves athletic performance [3].

Better workout performance allows you to achieve your fitness goals faster.

“Filling up your glycogen stores (body’s energy tank) before a workout can help improve your energy levels significantly during a workout.”

- Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT, Certified Trainer

2. Better Muscle Recovery

Pre-workout meals may prevent muscle breakdown by preventing muscle fatigue after exercise.

Inadequate recovery after your workout can lead to quicker muscle fatigue during your following workout. Muscle injury, more specifically muscle strain, has been linked to muscle fatigue [4].

Evidence suggests high-performance athletes need to consume a high-carb diet before working out to maintain muscle glycogen stores, which helps them stimulate muscle repair and growth [5].

3. May Prevent Injury

While these meals don’t prevent injury like safety equipment, they can indirectly keep you from unnecessary injuries that can hinder your progress significantly. Here’s how.

When the right nutrition fuels your body before a workout, you have higher energy and focus levels. Better focus, as well as mental and physical energy, allow you to concentrate on your exercise form. This can reduce your chances of making a faulty move and injuring yourself.

When Should You Eat?

Close up shot of a jogger looking at his watch

You should eat a pre-workout meal three hours to 30 minutes before your workout.

The timing of your pre-workout meal depends on a couple of things, primarily the digestibility of the food and serving size.

Fats are the slowest-digesting macronutrients, followed by lean protein, with carbohydrates usually the quickest [6].

So, if you’re going to eat a meal high in fats and protein, it’s better to keep a longer gap before your workout.

Additionally, you’ll want to avoid high-protein and high-fat foods right before your workout.

Carbs, on the other hand, don’t require as much of a gap. They are a quick energy source and digest pretty quickly, so you can have them 30 minutes to an hour before exercising.

“[I]f you have a longer workout and/or more intense sweat session planned, you will likely need more pre-exercise fuel ... I recommend choosing simple carbohydrates, which are faster forms of fuel and much easier for your body to access during exercise compared to fats or proteins. These take longer to digest and utilize, which can also cause some gut discomfort.”

- Dr. Tamanna Singh, MD, Clinical Cardiologist

Serving size also plays a role when eating before or after a workout. Eating a larger serving size means there’s more food that your body needs to digest. So, the more you eat, the longer you need to wait before working.

What’s worked best in my experience is waiting three hours if the meal is filling. The less filling your meal is, the less you need to wait before exercising.

Everyone’s got a different capacity, so experiment with it and find what works for you.

5 Best Pre-Workout Meals

Top view of a healthy meal

Based on our research and what worked best for our clients, we’ve compiled a list of the best pre-workout meals based on your fitness goals.

1. For Weight Loss

If your goal is to burn fat and lose weight fast, you want to focus on low-calorie meals that are rich in protein.

Here are some excellent pre-workout foods for weight loss. Many of them are keto-friendly:

  • Rice cakes with almond butter
  • BLT avocado
  • Chicken salad with tzatziki Greek yogurt
  • Turkey avocado wrap
  • Orange smoothie

2. For Bodybuilding

If your goal is to build muscle mass and improve strength, then you’ll want to focus on a pre-workout meal that’s rich in protein and creatine:

  • Broccoli and cheese omelet
  • Coconut and Almond mocha smoothie
  • Peanut butter and whey protein powder shake
  • Whole-grain bread with eggs and low-fat turkey

3. For an Energy Boost

If you want to get into your workout with high energy levels, you'll want to avoid slow-digesting foods. Rather you should focus on complex carbohydrates that'll fuel your workout.

Here are some great choices:

  • Peanut butter, banana, and chia seeds on whole grain bread
  • Nut butter balls and protein bar
  • Avocado on toast with hard-boiled egg before a workout 
  • Yogurt with berries, granola, and nut butter
  • Chicken with brown rice and veggies

4. For Women

Women have unique health concerns and typically don't burn as many calories as men. More often than not, they don't share the same workout goals.

Good pre-workout meals for women are sources that are low-calorie and energy-dense.

Here are some excellent options:

  • Sweet potato as a pre-workout snack
  • Oatmeal with honey
  • Whole fruits
  • Greek yogurt
  • Low-calorie fruit smoothies or protein shakes (made with almond or low-fat milk)

5. What About Supplements?

A buff male holding supplements in the gym

Pre-Workout Supplements are an excellent option if you’re running short on time and need a quick energy boost right before a workout.

While creatine supplements, BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), and protein powders are good, we highly recommend taking natural pre-workout alternatives.

A good quality pre-workout really benefits your workout routine by boosting your energy levels, improving post-workout recovery, and enhancing your exercise performance.

Pick one that contains all-natural ingredients so that you don’t suffer the negative effects like a crash after the pre-workout wears off.

FAQs

Is It Okay to Work Out on an Empty Stomach?

Yes, it’s okay to work out on an empty stomach as long as you’re not hungry to the point of distraction or doing a long, challenging workout.

Why Shouldn’t I Eat Pre-Workout Meals Immediately Before Exercising?

You shouldn’t eat pre-workout meals immediately before exercising because it may cause discomfort and stall your digestion. When you exercise right after a meal, there’s more blood going to your muscles, leaving less to assist your digestion.

What Should I Not Eat Before a Workout?

You should not eat anything that is extremely filling, like lasagna, fried chicken, or large salads, before a workout. These foods can leave you feeling weighed down and exhausted before you begin exercising.

Are Pre-Workout Meals Better Than Pre-Workout Supplements?

No, pre-workout meals are not necessarily better than pre-workout supplements, but it depends on your goals. While pre-workout meals give your body both energy and nutrition, they don’t boost your energy as significantly as supplements.

Are Pre-Workout Meals Better Than Pre-Workout Supplements?

No, pre-workout meals are not necessarily better than pre-workout supplements, but it depends on your goals. While pre-workout meals give your body both energy and nutrition, they don’t boost your energy as significantly as supplements.

Can I Have a Sports Drink Before My Workout?

Yes, you can have a sports drink before your workout. However, many sports drinks are high in calories and artificial ingredients, so be careful about which one you choose.

What We Recommend for Pre-Workout Nutrition

It's important to fuel your body with the right nutrients to maximize performance and recovery.

However, there are times when it's hard to get in a meal before a workout due to a time crunch.

In such cases, we recommend using high-quality and trusted pre-workout supplements to fuel your workout session.

We’ve tested all of the products on the lists, and our clients use them on a daily basis, as it helps them improve energy and workout performance.

Check out our list and find one that best suits your needs.


References:

  1. https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/2/4/43
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322963#carbohydrates
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16896166
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1047965118301359
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6019055/
  6. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/digests-first-protein-carbohydrates-fat-10384.html
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